Hillary's race against time

Are Clinton's inept attack ads and faux-feminism enough? Can Obama learn to attack? Plus: American eroticism devolves to Barbie boobs and Botox.

Published March 12, 2008 10:50AM (EDT)

Greetings from ground zero -- the Philadelphia suburbs where the epic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may be decided in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary on April 22. Current scuttlebutt -- a frail reed in this mercurial race -- is that the multiracial metropolises of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will go for Obama, while the vast rural and small-town heartland will endorse Clinton, whose family roots are in coal-country Scranton.

I saw the first Hillary signs going up this week: a thin, white-haired, but very determined elderly lady was trying to wrestle one into the ground near zipping traffic on a county highway. I thought, "Hmm ... Hillary's demographic?" Obama is certainly a darling of youth, the wave of the future. If he has failed thus far to reach working-class whites, it's because he's a dewy and somewhat reserved newcomer on the national stage. Ruggedly stumping Hillary, warts and all, is a known commodity. Obama's effect has been heaviest on the information class -- journalists, academics and white-collar professionals chained to computers and surfing the Web all day. He's been a flickering media phenomenon for everyone except attendees at his electrifying mass rallies. What's militated against Obama is simply time. The more he is known, the bigger his gains.

Obama (for whom I intend to vote) has the patrician elegance of John F. Kennedy, but JFK also campaigned with the raucous bravura and taunting raillery of a Boston Irishman. (His grandfather, "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, had been mayor of Boston.) Obama has seemed tentative in countering the Clintons' trademark mudslinging, but perhaps coolness and poise are what the nation needs after eight years of George W. Bush's lurching braggadocio. Obama hasn't figured out how to stay classy while delivering wicked stiletto thrusts -- a talent mastered in spades by British politicians produced by the Oxbridge debate culture.

Hillary, her shrill voice much improved and lowered through brutal overstrain, has certainly gained confidence and performance skill on the campaign trail, but I still don't trust her. The arrogant, self-absorbed Clintons have shown their unscrupulous hand to all who have eyes to see. Yes, Hillary may know the labyrinthine flow chart of the Washington bureaucracy, but her peripheral experiences as a gallivanting first lady scarcely qualify her to be commander in chief. On the contrary, her constant resort to schmaltzy videos and cheap entertainment riffs ("The Sopranos," "Saturday Night Live") has been depressingly unpresidential. Is this how she would govern? All that canned "softening" of Hillary's image would have been unnecessary had she had greater personal resources to begin with. Her cutesy campaign has set a bad precedent for future women candidates, who should stand on their own as proponents of public policy.

Would I want Hillary answering the red phone in the middle of the night? No, bloody not. The White House first responder should be a person of steady, consistent character and mood -- which describes Obama more than Hillary. And that scare ad was produced with amazing ineptitude. If it's 3 a.m., why is the male-seeming mother fully dressed as she comes in to check on her sleeping children? Is she a bar crawler or insomniac? An obsessive-compulsive housecleaner, like Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest"? And why is Hillary sitting at her desk in full drag and jewelry at that ungodly hour? A president should not be a monomaniac incapable of rest and perched on guard all night like Poe's baleful raven. People at the top need a relaxed perspective, which gives judgment and balance. Workaholism is an introspection-killing disease, the anxious disability of tunnel-vision middle managers.

[Watch Hillary's "3 a.m." ad, below]

As for the Dems' hybrid "dream ticket" of Hillary and Obama, which Bill Clinton bumptiously declared "unstoppable," are they kidding? Sure, it might resolve a sticky wicket inside the party, but a ticket must be carefully crafted for maximum appeal in the general election. Whoever wins the nomination will need a vice-president who can shore up the leader's perceived weakness on military and national security issues. And besides, neither Hillary nor Obama, who are major divas, should ever be stashed in the V.P. micro-slot, which would humiliatingly limit their political mobility over future years. A V.P. should be deferential and lower wattage and never upstage the head of the ticket. Only a masochist or castrate would want to be Hillary's V.P. anyhow, since Bill would sit on him like a beanbag.

The cloud of feminist cant about Hillary's struggling candidacy has been noxious. "Media misogyny has reached an all-time high," screeched the National Organization for Women in a press release titled "Ignorance and Venom: The Media's Deeply Ingrained Sexism." Groan. If women are going to play in the geopolitical big league, they'd better toughen up and learn how to deal with all the curveballs. Never has the soppy emotionalism of old-guard feminist reasoning been on such open and embarrassing display. How has Hillary, who rode her husband's coattails to the top and who trashed every woman he seduced or assaulted, become such a feminist heroine? What has she ever achieved on her own -- aside from the fiasco of healthcare reform?

And if the media is treating Hillary in a gendered way, hasn't she herself constantly and cynically dramatized her embattled womanhood? It began with her snappish defense of her hangdog husband during the Gennifer Flowers imbroglio of 1992. Blame tail-chasing Bill, from Little Rock on, for sexualizing the popular perception of the Clintons. Nubile, exploited Monica Lewinsky will always hover around Hillary like ghostly baggage. Bill's serial abuses betray a profound ambivalence about and deep-seated hostility to women -- something the Clintons' giddy feminist flacks just don't see. Why was Hillary flying around the world to those 80 countries anyhow -- building her résumé while leaving her randy hubby unleashed? Anyone who thinks Bill's exploits are going to stop after Hillary is president has, well, a screw loose. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's entrapment in a sex scandal is coming at a particularly inopportune moment for the Clintons, since it simply reminds everyone again of tawdry, furtive, high-placed adultery.

As a longtime listener, I was surprised and disappointed by Rush Limbaugh's call for Republicans to vote for Hillary in the Texas and Ohio primaries to keep the Democratic campaign in costly turmoil. Rush made an analogy to the New Hampshire primary, where independents and crossover Democrats gave victory to John McCain over Republican opponents who split the conservative vote. But McCain already had a long-standing high reputation among liberal Democrats (which I've never shared) and may indeed attract their support in the general election. In Texas and Ohio, in contrast, Rush was asking Republicans to vote for a candidate (variously called "Hitlery" or the "Hildebeast" on the Web) who was anathema to them.

I take the ballot very seriously, because it took women so long to win it. I am very unsettled by tactical voting -- that is, using one's vote as a stratagem in what Rush describes as "gamesmanship": "It's all about winning," he has repeatedly said to callers protesting the Hillary stunt. But hasn't Rush's massive appeal always been based on his adherence to core principles rather than to narrow partisanship? I believe that every vote one casts should be meaningful and should reflect one's considered judgment, even when a candidate doesn't fulfill all one's desires. Surely tactical voting across party lines is a form of tampering, a debasement of the ballot that will inevitably weaken the democratic process and the prestige of American institutions.

Back to feminism: I recently stumbled on a fascinating book at the public library, Peter Kurth's "American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson," published in 1990. Thompson was the world-famous journalist satirized in "Woman of the Year," the 1942 film where she was played by a lordly Katharine Hepburn. Both Thompson and Hepburn were brilliant examples of the many high-achieving women of the 1920s and '30s. In the early 1960s, as an adolescent in the throes of my Amelia Earhart craze, I madly researched that exhilarating period of feminism in old newspapers and magazines in the bowels of the Syracuse library. (This was before Betty Friedan, who may have given birth to Gloria Steinem but who sure didn't produce Germaine Greer or me.)

What an extraordinary life Thompson led -- a pinnacle of which was her loud disruption of a pro-Nazi rally of the German-American Bund in New York's Madison Square Garden, from which she was expelled. Kurth reproduces an astonishing photo of the defiant Thompson swamped by men in Nazi uniforms. (Swastika banners festooned the hall, which was packed with 22,000 people.) The book follows Thompson's rapid rise and stunning productivity as a journalist and broadcaster. Then there was Thompson's conflicted marriage to novelist Sinclair Lewis, her lesbian affairs (including with Christa Winsloe, the author of "Maedchen in Uniform") and her painful neglect of her son for her career.

The boldness of that generation of women, who were facing obstacles and prejudices far greater than today's, makes me impatient with the reactionary whining one hears from establishment feminists, including Steinem, about the supposedly still-crippling pervasiveness of sexism. As an equity feminist, I demand equal opportunities for women, but I strongly oppose intrusive special protections for women, which I regard as counterproductive and infantilizing. (My gender philosophy is fully detailed in "No Law in the Arena" in "Vamps & Tramps.")

One feminist issue that's still very much on the boil regards women in science. Has their career advancement been hindered by systemic institutional sexism? Complaints by women scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which received wide and sympathetic press coverage in 1999, resurfaced with a bang when Harvard president Larry Summers casually speculated at a 2005 conference about whether the low number of women in science and math could possibly be the result of, among other things, a lack of aptitude.

Christina Hoff Sommers has just published a long, hard-hitting essay in the American revealing many startling details about the initial MIT case, which was evidently not nearly as solid as press reports had implied, as well as about increasing pressure on the federal government for an expansion of Title IX to enforce gender outcomes in science in the same way as was done for campus sports (which led to men's wrestling teams being scrapped by universities meeting gender quotas).

Sommers will be a panelist discussing women and religion at a conference, "The Legacy and the Future of Feminism," to be held next month at Harvard University. I will be giving the conference's keynote address, currently scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 10, in the Science Center. The title of my speech: "Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action, and Reform." All events are free and open to the public.

Sex, of course, remains a hotly contested issue within feminism itself. I have defended pornography and supported the decriminalization of prostitution, positions that I still maintain. (I hope that the valiant women staffers of the Emperors' Club, Eliot Spitzer's hypnotic Xanadu, don't suffer in any way.) However, I am very concerned by a degeneration of erotic images in American media. It isn't their mammoth proliferation that disturbs me (as it does many other feminists); it's their antiseptic quality in this era of Botox and plasticized Barbie boobs. American sex is all flash and no sizzle.

One could see it in the banal pack of glamazon young actresses on the red carpet at the Oscars -- with their parched, stylist-honed outfits, their bony Pilates arms, their immobilized faces and simpering smirks, and their vapid, perky voices. All of them were upstaged in an instant by Marion Cotillard, the best actress winner whose French sensuality and sparkling vitality simply leapt off the TV screen. In France, there's still a mystique about female sexuality, a quiet magnetism that has been completely lost in the U.S., where at least our major movie stars once had it.

But even the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which used to be a luscious winter extravaganza of sinuous tigresses or golden California gals lolling in sultry, exotic locales, has now become utterly boring and flat. The artistry, charm and provocation are gone; all that's left is empty, mechanical attitudinizing. Yet another cultural landmark down the tubes. If you want to see what a collapse has occurred in America's imagery of sex, check out this 1961 Life magazine cover starring my pagan goddess of that era, Elizabeth Taylor. She is regally presiding with her gleaming Oscar for "Butterfield 8," where she played a glossy Manhattan call girl. Now that's a woman!

By the time we got to college in the 1960s, my baby-boom generation had access to a huge range of exciting female personae -- from the splendiferous Diana Rigg doing karate chops in leather jumpsuits in "The Avengers" to the mercurial Edie Sedgwick setting off her elfin youthquake as an Andy Warhol superstar. Speaking of Edie, I found this "diaporama" tribute to her on YouTube, set to a song composed and sung by Étienne Daho. That led in turn to another video, where Daho does a deliciously relaxed duet on French TV with Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of the legendary Serge Gainsbourg and that British crumpet, Jane Birkin).

Here's natural, invigorating French womanliness on display again in the supply expressive Gainsbourg. And despite the intermittent corniness of French pop, what an affectingly simple and evocative performance -- a mature man and a sophisticated young woman exchanging meaningful glances and exploring a palette of authentic emotions. With the death of the vaudeville-derived variety format, we never get that on American TV anymore, except from aging country singers, who have become increasingly pat and formulaic in their stagecraft over the past 20 years.

European women of every nationality were part of the great glory of art films at their height from the late 1940s to the early '70s. I feel so lucky to have been able to see foreign films nonstop in real theaters when I was a college and grad student forming my ideas about sex and gender. Those fabulous women: Jeanne Moreau, Anouk Aimée, Anna Karina, Melina Mercouri, Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullman, Ingrid Thulin, Delphine Seyrig, Geneviève Page, Catherine Deneuve, Julie Christie, Billie Whitelaw, Susannah York. The list goes on and on.

I've been renting films from Netflix starring one of my all-time favorite stars, Monica Vitti, who has had a major career in Italy as a movie and stage actress as well as an acting teacher. She has a brilliant facility for comedy, both vocal and physical -- something not normally associated with the star of Antonioni's brooding, angst-filled films like "L'Avventura," "Red Desert" and "L'Eclisse." Here's Vitti in a publicity still. And here's the inimitably ultra-chic Jeanne Moreau standing bleakly with Vitti in Antonioni's "La Notte." (Though they're love rivals over Marcello Mastroianni, Vitti has been charitably drying Moreau's rain-soaked tresses.)

I recently viewed a Vitti film that I had never seen, "The Scarlet Lady," an absurd 1968 color romp about a vengeful perfume heiress on a Parisian shopping spree. Its entire raison d'être is evidently to put Vitti through her paces in a wealth of postures, moods and trendy costumes. What a formidable presence she is -- tall and kinetic, with a drawling, raspy contralto, kohl-rimmed cat eyes, and a strong, sharp nose that turns her face into a work of sculpture. Monica Vitti makes today's Hollywood actresses look like callow fruit flies.

Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

MORE FROM Camille Paglia

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton